I won’t lie. It was hard writing yesterday’s blog post.
The entire point of the post was to talk about the challenges that present with not only clean eating – which clearly needs to be better defined – but also to acknowledge the fact that some people, quite frankly, are jerks about it all.
And, like I said before, the world does not have its shortage of jerks. One could easily consider someone who accuses clean eaters as having undiagnosed “eating disorders” a jerk, but I’m coolin’.
Let me tell you a little story.
Once upon a time, in ’94, Montell made no money and life sure was slow.
Okay, okay, I’m sorry.
The day I finally decided to seriously try to work out to lose weight, was a long one. I’d left the gym, after completing my membership paperwork, and went home… but I came back later that night at 11pm. It was quiet, empty, and I was by myself. Enjoying myself.
I busted my ass every night. Six, seven hundred calories a session. I was serious about my training, and I meant every step on the elliptical, every pull on the lever, every lift of the barbell.
I went with a consistency that you could set a watch to — every night at 11, you’d see me in the gym, posing in the mirror and studying my body, watching my form, and tootsie rolling by the leg press. I was enjoying myself, and proud. This thing, this working out thing that I’d always wanted to take seriously, I was finally doing it!
Except, I wasn’t losing any weight from it, and that was my main goal in wanting to get started. Why else would I be so invested in going to the gym, if not to lose weight?
I didn’t see genuine success until I actually stopped eating what I was eating.
And what the hell was I eating?
Cookies, little hand pies, cupcakes, sure. But also, something else.
After every training session, I’d go to Taco Bell, and get nachos – nachos – as my post-workout meal. I’d come home and eat taquitos and sour cream – I’d assume I could forego the salsa because I worked out earlier, it’ll be fine – and then I’d go to sleep.
It’s obvious to people what I was doing wrong, but let me tell you why it was so challenging for me – and probably lots of other people – to change.
I’ve experienced an insurmountable amount of trauma in my life. I have major issues with safety and security, because of my past. I’ve endured so much in my life, and my family was so incapable of providing support so that I could come out of it all mentally healthy, that I’ve spent decades trying to go at it alone. I eventually reached a point in my life where food was my only salvation.
Yes, you read that correctly. I found myself at 330lbs after the birth of my daughter – and someday, I’ll be mentally healthy enough to talk about that ordeal – because I’d spend the last 13 or so years using food as the thing that made me happy.
I’d spent my teen years stealing food from my Mom. She’d buy these Cheez Twister things (if you’re from Ohio, you know DanDee!) and put them in the pantry, and I’d swipe the bag, run up to my stairs and scarf down as many as I could. She’d always ask me where her cheez twisters went, and I’d tell her I didn’t know. Once she caught on, she started putting the snacks in her room, hiding them in her closet.
I found those, too.
After that, she put a deadbolt lock on her bedroom door. I’d just search the house for the spare key and, once I found it, it spared me from the judgment (and, consequently, shame), for a while.
And, as I aged, I got even sneakier. Instead of eating the whole bag, I’d take only what I needed, and leave the rest. This only worked for a while, because I’d eventually need more and more and more.
Mom got tired of locking everything in her room, so she started putting things back in the pantry, but then the deadbolt came on that door, too. Here, she didn’t have to worry about locking her keys in the pantry accidentally because she wanted a snack. It was at this point that I decided it was time to get a job.
My first three jobs, as a teen, were solely for keeping my microbraids fresh, my perm touched up and my junk food stash stacked. It was literally me, standing in the junk food aisle, staring at a new flavor of Ruffles and wondering if it would do something to make me feeeeel better. (Sorry.)
As I’d gotten older and went off to college, my best friend was one of the most fit people on the planet. (And, as I say this, she just won first place in her first bikini competition. Congrats, Meatball!) She’d go workout, I’d go to practice. We went to breakfast, lunch and dinner together every day, and I could never not notice how different our plates were. I’d always have so much food that I’d need almost two plates. She’d always knew exactly how much she needed, and for her small frame, her small plate made sense. I used to think she was starving herself to be skinny, because I never knew or understood fitness, exercise, or food. She wasn’t anti-processed food – it’s kinda hard to do that in college – but she certainly wasn’t double-plating like I was.
College life only made it easier for me to binge eat. I could go to the student center, grab all the junk food I wanted, blame it on a “long study session,” and then take my ass right up to my room and hide out for a few days, never coming out. I always kept a single dorm to myself, and though the closet was built for two people, it was all mine – one closet for clothing, the other for junk food. In fact, I’m pretty certain that once the money on my cafe card ran out, I spent one whole week sustaining off of ramen noodles, and the last week of school? I survived solely on microwave popcorn and hershey kisses.
When pregnancy came, again – it was so easy for me to binge eat, and blame it on the baby. Everyone treated me like such a delicate flower, especially my male classmates, and I loved it! It was nice to feel so, I don’t know… it was nice to feel like my thoughts and feelings were being considered. We used to throw a weekly jazz jamming session on campus – we’d schlep all our speakers, mics, pianos, and stands over to the auditorium, and invite anyone on campus who wanted to sing, recite poetry over the band, and basically just enjoy a good time to come and spend their Sweet Tuesday night with us. Not once would they ever let me lift anything heavier than a mic stand. My sorority sisters were my real sisters away from home – as elders provided me guidance, my peers encouraged me. Everyone wanted, so badly, to be the village that helped me raise my child, that they provided me with fast food, junk food and snacks en masse to ‘make me happy’ – family was so far away, and my spouse was stationed out of the country with the military – until the semester ended.
Even when I found myself laid up in a hospital bed, because I was so lethargic and tired that I couldn’t even stay awake while walking to class, let alone in class, my doctor said nothing about the 50lbs I’d put on since I’d last seen him, nor did he utter one word about nutrition. I was simply hyperglycemic, but not yet diabetic. That’s all.
Once the semester ended and I returned home, my Mom’s tune changed. She stacked the fridge so high that it made no sense. Pantry overflowed. Everything I could’ve ever wanted, and in a refrigerator, not in the cafeteria? Right at my fingertips? With no one to check me on it, because I was pregnant? It was a binge eater’s dream.
It was finally catching up to me, though. I had such little muscle and was so weak by the 40th week of my pregnancy, that it was to the point where I would be physically incapable of pushing my daughter out, so I had to have a c-section. Healing was hard, and my body reacted poorly to the surgery. What’s more, is that the hyper-binge eating habit that I’d picked up when I was pregnant? I still had it. It didn’t go away with the baby.
May of 2008 – when I was all gung-ho in the gym – sparked a fire in me, but December of 2008 extinguished it quickly. I’d worked so hard, and lost so little, that I was furious. I quit.
And I put on 10lbs in as little as three months.
I found the book, The End of Overeating, that taught me about binge eating and its correlation to emotional eating and food addiction. I spoke with a therapist, also a sorority sister, who taught me about developing healthy coping mechanisms. I learned about the neurological pathways that I’d spent years developing with my habits, which taught my brain that “if you want to be happy, go binge on junk food.”
The fact of the matter, really, is that processed food can be addictive for the right person. Every single year, a slew of studies, books and news articles arise that discuss the challenges of people – regardless of whether or not they have ‘addictive personalities’* – who consume them, with or without regularity, whether they’re obese or not.
Take, for instance, this article that just came out last week:
To test the addictiveness of Oreos, Honohan and a co-researcher, Becca Markson ’13, worked with Schroeder and two other students, Science Leader Gabriela Lopez ’15 and Katrina Bantis ’15, during the past school year to measure the association between “drug” and environment.
Honohan and other students, along with Schneider, put Oreos on one side of a maze and rice cakes on the other. Rats were given the option where to go, and you can guess where that was. The rats, he said, broke open the cookie and ate the middle first.
The researchers then compared the time that the rats spent with the Oreos and the rice cakes, and compared that to the results of an experiment in which rats on one side of a maze were given a shot of saline and rats on the other side were given an injection of cocaine or morphine, both addictive drugs. (Schroeder is licensed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to purchase and use controlled substances for research, the release says.)
The results? The rats spent as much time with Oreos as they did with cocaine/morphine.
Honohan was quoted as saying:
My research interests stemmed from a curiosity for studying human behavior and our motivations when it comes to food. We chose Oreos not only because they are America’s favorite cookie, and highly palatable to rats, but also because products containing high amounts of fat and sugar are heavily marketed in communities with lower socioeconomic statuses.
Neuroscience major and Science Leader Lauren Cameron ’14 was awarded a grant to continue the work this past summer with Schroeder. Their results: Oreos activated significantly more neurons in rats’ brains than did cocaine or morphine.
“This correlated well with our behavioral results and lends support to the hypothesis that high-fat/ high-sugar foods are addictive,” said Schroeder. [source]
Do you need more? Blog with me, you know I got it:
(The excerpt is long, but as always the important stuff is in bold.)
A growing body of medical research at leading universities and government laboratories suggests that processed foods and sugary drinks made by the likes of PepsiCo Inc. and Kraft Foods Inc. aren’t simply unhealthy. They can hijack the brain in ways that resemble addictions to cocaine, nicotine and other drugs.
“The data is so overwhelming the field has to accept it,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “We are finding tremendous overlap between drugs in the brain and food in the brain.”
The idea that food may be addictive was barely on scientists’ radar a decade ago. Now the field is heating up. Lab studies have found sugary drinks and fatty foods can produce addictive behavior in animals. Brain scans of obese people and compulsive eaters, meanwhile, reveal disturbances in brain reward circuits similar to those experienced by drug abusers.
Twenty-eight scientific studies and papers on food addiction have been published this year, according to a National Library of Medicine database. As the evidence expands, the science of addiction could become a game changer for the $1 trillion food and beverage industries.
[…]A Lot Like Addiction
Those changes look a lot like addiction to some experts. Addiction “is a loaded term, but there are aspects of the modern diet that can elicit behavior that resembles addiction,” said David Ludwig, a Harvard researcher and director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Children’s Hospital Boston. Highly processed foods may cause rapid spikes and declines in blood sugar, increasing cravings, his research has found.
Education, diets and drugs to treat obesity have proven largely ineffective and the new science of obesity may explain why, proponents say. Constant stimulation with tasty, calorie- laden foods may desensitize the brain’s circuitry, leading people to consume greater quantities of junk food to maintain a constant state of pleasure.
In one 2010 study, scientists at Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter, Florida, fed rats an array of fatty and sugary products including Hormel Foods Corp. bacon, Sara Lee Corp. pound cake, The Cheesecake Factory Inc. cheesecake and Pillsbury Co. Creamy Supreme cake frosting. The study measured activity in regions of the brain involved in registering reward and pleasure through electrodes implanted in the rats.
The rats that had access to these foods for one hour a day started binge eating, even when more nutritious food was available all day long. Other groups of rats that had access to the sweets and fatty foods for 18 to 23 hours per day became obese, Paul Kenny, the Scripps scientist heading the study wrote in the journal Nature Neuroscience. The results produced the same brain pattern that occurs with escalating intake of cocaine, he wrote.
“To see food do the same thing was mind-boggling,” Kenny later said in an interview.
Researchers are finding that damage to the brain’s reward centers may occur when people eat excessive quantities of food.
In one 2010 study conducted by researchers at the University of Texas in Austin and the Oregon Research Institute, a nonprofit group that studies human behavior, 26 overweight young women were given magnetic resonance imaging scans as they got sips of a milkshake made with Haagen-Dazs ice cream and Hershey Co.’s chocolate syrup.
The same women got repeat MRI scans six months later. Those who had gained weight showed reduced activity in the striatum, a region of the brain that registers reward, when they sipped milkshakes the second time, according to the study results, published last year in the Journal of Neuroscience.
“A career of overeating causes blunted reward receipt, and this is exactly what you see with chronic drug abuse,” said Eric Stice, a researcher at the Oregon Research Institute.
Scientists studying food addiction have had to overcome skepticism, even from their peers. In the late 1990s, NIDA’s Volkow, then a drug addiction researcher at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, applied for a National Institutes of Health grant to scan obese people to see whether their brain reward centers were affected. Her grant proposal was turned down.
“I couldn’t get it funded,” she said in an interview. “The response was, there is no evidence that food produces addictive-like behaviors in the brain.”
Volkow, working with Brookhaven researcher Gene-Jack Wang, cobbled together funding from another government agency to conduct a study using a brain scanning device capable of measuring chemical activity inside the body using radioactive tracers.
Researchers were able to map dopamine receptor levels in the brains of 10 obese volunteers. Dopamine is a chemical produced in the brain that signals reward. Natural boosters of dopamine include exercise and sexual activity, but drugs such as cocaine and heroin also stimulate the chemical in large quantities.
In drug abusers, brain receptors that receive the dopamine signal may become unresponsive with increased drug usage, causing drug abusers to steadily increase their dosage in search of the same high. The Brookhaven study found that the obese people also had lowered levels of dopamine receptors compared with a lean control group.
Addicted to Sugar
The same year, psychologists at Princeton University began studying whether lab rats could become addicted to a 10 percent solution of sugar water, about the same percentage of sugar contained in most soft drinks.
An occasional drink caused no problems for the lab animals. Yet the researchers found dramatic effects when the rats were allowed to drink sugar-water every day. Over time they drank “more and more and more” while eating less of their usual diet, said Nicole Avena, who began the work as a graduate student at Princeton and is now a neuroscientist at the University of Florida.
The animals also showed withdrawal symptoms, including anxiety, shakes and tremors, when the effect of the sugar was blocked with a drug. The scientists, moreover, were able to determine changes in the levels of dopamine in the brain, similar to those seen in animals on addictive drugs.
“We consistently found that the changes we were observing in the rats binging on sugar were like what we would see if the animals were addicted to drugs,” said Avena, who for years worked closely with the late Princeton psychologist, Bartley Hoebel, who died this year.
While the animals didn’t become obese on sugar water alone, they became overweight when Avena and her colleagues offered them water sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup.
A 2007 French experiment stunned researchers when it showed that rats prefer water sweetened with saccharine or sugar to hits of cocaine — exactly the opposite of what existing dogma would have suggested.
“It was a big surprise,” said Serge Ahmed, a neuroscientist who led the research for the French National Research Council at the University of Bordeaux.
Yale’s Brownell helped organize one of the first conferences on food addiction in 2007. Since then, a protégé, Ashley Gearhardt, devised a 25-question survey to help researchers spot people with eating habits that resemble addictive behavior.
Pictures of Milkshakes
She and her colleagues used magnetic resonance imaging to examine brain activity of women scoring high on the survey. Pictures of milkshakes lit up the same brain regions that become hyperactive in alcoholics anticipating a drink, according to results published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in April.
Food addiction research may reinvigorate the search for effective obesity drugs, said Mark Gold, who chairs the psychiatry department at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Gold said the treatments he is working on seek to alter food preferences without suppressing overall appetite.
“We are trying to develop treatments that interfere with pathological food preferences,” he said. “Let’s say you are addicted to ice cream, you might come up with a treatment that blocked your interest in ice cream, but doesn’t affect your interest in meat.”
In related work, Shire Plc, a Dublin-based drugmaker, is testing its Vyvanse hyperactivity drug in patients with binge- eating problems.
Not everyone is convinced. Swansea University psychologist David Benton recently published a 16-page rebuttal to sugar addiction studies. The paper, partly funded by the World Sugar Research Organization, which includes Atlanta-based Coca-Cola, the world’s largest soft-drink maker, argues that food doesn’t produce the same kind of intense dopamine release seen with drugs and that blocking certain brain receptors doesn’t produce withdrawal symptoms in binge-eaters as it does in drug abusers.
What’s still unknown is whether the science of food addition has begun to change the thinking among food and beverage companies, which are, after all, primarily in the business of selling the Doritos, Twinkies and other fare people crave.
About 80 percent of Purchase, New York-based PepsiCo’s marketing budget, for instance, is directed toward pushing salty snacks and sodas.
“We want to see profit growth and revenue growth,” said Tim Hoyle, director of research at Haverford Trust Co. in Radnor, Pennsylvania, an investor in PepsiCo, the world’s largest snack-food maker. “The health foods are good for headlines but when it gets down to it, the growth drivers are the comfort foods, the Tostitos and the Pepsi-Cola.”
Little wonder that the food industry is pushing hard on the idea that the best way to get a handle on obesity is through voluntary measures and by offering healthier choices. The same tactic worked for awhile, decades ago, for the tobacco industry, which deflected attention from the health risks and addictive nature of cigarettes with “low tar and nicotine” marketing.
Food industry lobbyists don’t buy that argument — or even the idea that food addiction may exist. Said Richard Adamson, a pharmacologist and consultant for the American Beverage Association: “I have never heard of anyone robbing a bank to get money to buy a candy bar or ice cream or pop.” [source]
(Never mind the fact that people do, in fact, steal the actual ice cream, candy bar or pop… but, okay.)
I am a recovering food addict. I am proud to say the word “recovering” because, although recovery is a never-ending process – there will always be a new stressor and, because of that, there will always be a new challenge – the recovery I’ve experienced thus far has been overwhelming. I’ve been able to do all of this through giving up processed food and embracing clean eating.
Clean eating – and, as I said before, I do it the hippie way, not the bodybuilder way – means simply giving up processed food, and keeping your diet as close to 100% produce and quality proteins (which, yes, includes grains) as possible. Of course, anyone moving towards this kind of diet and away from my old lifestyle should expect to lose weight, sure, and as always the weight loss isn’t guaranteed. That being said, the weight loss isn’t the reason to eat clean.
As someone who was an emotional eater, I felt held captive by my habits. That will power that people used to consistently beat me over the head with, it was a foreign concept for me. Eating foods that where chemically engineered to reduce my ability to control my consumption, was a recipe for overeating and, by extension, weight gain. Choosing to remove myself from that equation – sure, they can make the foods, but IIIIIIIIIII won’t be buying them – allowed me to understand what it felt like to eat food and not feel like I was just inhaling it, waiting for the “good feelings” to rain down.
And what, prey tell, are those good feelings?
Dr. Kessler isn’t convinced that food makers fully understand the neuroscience of the forces they have unleashed, but food companies certainly understand human behavior, taste preferences and desire. In fact, he offers descriptions of how restaurants and food makers manipulate ingredients to reach the aptly named “bliss point.” Foods that contain too little or too much sugar, fat or salt are either bland or overwhelming. But food scientists work hard to reach the precise point at which we derive the greatest pleasure from fat, sugar and salt.
The result is that chain restaurants like Chili’s cook up “hyper-palatable food that requires little chewing and goes down easily,” he notes. And Dr. Kessler reports that the Snickers bar, for instance, is “extraordinarily well engineered.” As we chew it, the sugar dissolves, the fat melts and the caramel traps the peanuts so the entire combination of flavors is blissfully experienced in the mouth at the same time. [source]
And, from WebMD:
Neal Barnard, MD, for example, says he believes that cheese, meat, chocolate, and sugar are addictive foods in the diets of millions of Americans. Barnard, the author of Breaking the Food Seduction and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, says that these foods contain chemical compounds that stimulate the brain’s secretion of opiate-like, “feel-good” chemicals like dopamine, which drive our cravings for them. [source]
Marrying a chef, I must admit, made things a little easier, too. Together, we explored other cultures’ foodways – both his and mine – and looked for authenticity, something easily spotted by the unnecessary (and quite American) tradition of adding sugar to something for no reason. I learned to cook – and, to be honest, I’m quite good at it now, far better than I was when I was making weird stir fry dishes with any frozen vegetable I could get my hands on – and learned that no, clean eating doesn’t have to be cardboard. It doesn’t have to be crap thrown together for fun. It doesn’t have to be any of that. In fact, many cultures were eating this way long before the allure and convenience of American fast food came in. Many still do.
People often make the statement that “it’s just calories in, calories out,” and that’s really cute to say to someone who doesn’t know any better, but I do. Of course it’s calories in vs calories out, but the sources of those calories matter. If your calories come from a diet high in carbs, it affects the kind of body you can build under that kind of diet. A diet high in processed foods is, without a doubt, a diet relatively high in carbs. A diet high in relative carbs builds a body low in muscle, and a body low in muscle doesn’t burn the same amount of calories as it could with, say, even ten pounds of lean muscle added.
Conversations about “calories in vs calories out” also often stem from one’s desire to eat junk food with impunity, and that’s okay. Do you. But for myself – and, I suspect, many Americans – processed food combined with a lack of coping mechanisms results creates a tailspin that not only requires a declaration of war to defeat, but also creates an almost-unbreakable correlation between pleasure and unhealthy quantities of junk food.
Believe me, I tried to do everything except give up my junk food in order to still prosper, but I couldn’t. You can’t work on your addiction to something while still consuming that item. You can’t.
But, learning to eat whole, unprocessed food taught me a few things:
1) I will never add as much salt to my own dishes as I’d otherwise find in a processed food version of it.
2) I’d never sugar my own drink with the amount of sugar found in a processed food beverage – most of us cringe at the thought of adding more than two teaspoons – about 8g – of sugar to our coffee… there are seven teaspoons in an 8oz cup of sodapop.
3) If I’d added the amount of fat found in my favorite processed food dish to my own dish, it’d taste too oily, too soft, too smooth for my liking. Many different kinds of powdered fats are added to processed food to aid it in mixing with water to make whatever creamy consistency is necessary. Adding fat to things helps bump up the flavor where there is none.
The hilarity in the article I wrote yesterday, is that while so many people whine about all the superficial reasons why clean eating is problematic, they never – not once – talk about this perceived benefit. Why? Because food addiction is a “non-issue.” It’s something made up by fat people who want excuses for being fat. Except when you stop being fat and lose weight, then people actually listen to you. (Hence, apparently, me, after having successfully lost almost 170lbs.)I’m not writing this for people who already have their minds set on clean eating being crap. I’m writing this for people who want to know why, in the face of all the stuff coming out that says I should be able to eat my junk food and still lose weight, I would still deign to eat clean. It’s simple: because I can have better tasting food, lose weight, not feel lethargic and irritable, have better control over my emotions and desires, not feel like a slave to my cravings, and build the body I’ve always wanted while eating clean. With clean eating, I run the show, not my cravings. We can squabble over “how even fresh produce is processed” – pardon my laughter while you do it – and everything needs to be in moderation, but I’m long past that. Clean eating gave me the chance to create my boundaries, and I’m never violating them again. Do what you want with your body, and I’ll never tell you to do differently. But, for goodness’ sakes, please don’t try to devalue clean eating in my presence. It has saved my** life.
*I’m of the mind that any combination of major stress and an ability to handle it can turn a person into someone with “an addictive personality.” Be it cigarettes, alcohol, cocaine or food, addiction still serves the same purpose, accomplishes the same goal and still has to be handled the right way, else you can never recover.
**You could also argue that it has saved my daughter’s life, too. The babies… they learn from us.